Study urges establishment of specialist family courts

Child protection cases in the district court often end up as a battle between the HSE and the family, according to new research.

Study urges establishment of specialist family courts

The research was carried out by academic researchers from the School of Applied Social Studies (Dr Kenneth Burns and Caroline Shore) and the Faculty of Law (Dr Conor O’Mahony and Dr Aisling Parkes) at UCC.

It finds that the setting-up of specialist children or family courts would be the best way of improving the experiences of such cases by those involved in them.

Looking at District Court child protection cases, it found a number of positive areas of practice, such as no evidence of avoidable delay in accessing proceedings in this county, and while all of the professionals in these proceedings are working under increasing caseloads, they do prioritise this work due to its sensitivity and importance.

But it also found shortcomings, not least that “the adversarial model can shift the focus of proceedings from the welfare of the child to the conflict between the HSE and parents”.

The research also found parents can find themselves defending applications in a system where applications by the HSE are successful in the overwhelming majority of cases, even though there is an assumption that a child is best placed with their family.

The physical infrastructure of the courts, the scheduling of cases, and the way the law is interpreted and applied “in an inconsistent way” where “different judges have different approaches, and have little awareness of what other judges are doing”, were other negative factors mentioned in the study.

The research was outlined at a session at the fourth biennial conference in UCC on child protection and welfare and came in a week in which a seven-year-old girl from a Roma family in Tallaght was removed from her family and taken into care through an emergency care order. The girl was returned to her parents the next day amid fears from Roma rights campaigners and others that racial profiling may have been used in the case. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children is due to investigate the actions of the gardaí and the HSE in that case and in another similar case in Athlone on Tuesday.

The report stated that changes to the in-camera rule will help contribute to a greater level of transparency and welcomed plans by the Government to set up a new family courts system.

Yesterday’s conference was closed by Norah Gibbons, chairperson of the new Child and Family Support Agency, which will assume responsibility for child protection and welfare next year from the HSE.

She said the agency was not simply a rebranding exercise and offered hope for the future.

The conference also heard from social workers on their commitment to their work at a time when resourcing issues were of serious concern, and calls for reduced caseloads and greater career opportunities in the new agency.

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